Geneva 2015: Audi R8 saves the (real) world

maxresdefault-2Most reports of the 2015 Geneva Motor Show, which opened its doors last week, have adopted the view that it’s primarily about the exotic supercars. It’s not.

Yes, there were new supercars from Ferrari, Aston Martin, McLaren, Lamborghini and other exotic brands. Even the mainstream crowd was at it, with the revival of the iconic Ford GT.

But the real trend among exotic performance cars was more subtle. Not only that but it tells us something about the future of EVs (electric vehicles). Honda geneva-2015-94showed its own reborn icon, the NSX, but has reinterpreted it supercar as a three-motor hybrid. It’s a contemporary performance engineering approach far more in line with the hybrid hypercar holy trinity of LaFerrari, McLaren P1 and Porsche 918. But where their price tags are $1m-plus, the NSX will be more like $150,000.

Yes, that’s still a lot of money, but it positions the NSX in a new, real-world exotic sports car environment – a place where price, performance and poor taste are images-24restrained and the cars better for it – alongside BMW’s i8 and the Audi R8 e-tron unveiled at Geneva. Audi has gone a step further than Honda and BMW and given the R8 e-tron a pure electric driveline – producing 456bhp and a range of 280 miles for not much more money than the Honda. And not an engine in sight.

This reflects a rapidly growing trend – EVs are going upmarket. As everyday small-to-medium size cars like the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, EV sales remain minimal. Even BMW’s avant-garde, brilliantly engineered, brilliantly marketed and affordable i3 isn’t shifting. So the carmakers are putting EV tech into high-end models and positioning them as the top variants – as in the new Audi Q7 e-tron SUV shown in Geneva, with a hybrid drivetrain. BMW, Range Rover and Volvo have all chosen this strategy already.

photo_20_0Audi has admitted that the pure electric technology in the R8 e-tron will be introduced in at least one more mainstream model in a couple of years or so – most likely a medium-sized SUV with a target of a 300m-plus range. No coincidence that Tesla, which has shaken the establishment with its battery-only performance and range, will have introduced its first SUV by then. This part of the market will be the epicentre of EV growth.

After publicly doubting battery-only EVs Audi has done a U-turn and is now clearly committed to them. It is effectively leading VW Group’s EV efforts, and may well become the leading EV OEM bar none, because it operates in the premium space where the additional cost of electric technologies can be absorbed, yet has mass-volume appeal. Audi could be a catalyst to widespread EV acceptance and adoption.

In this sense Geneva 2015 is all about the real world. Look past the roped-off stands, fake tans, carbon-fibre and colossal combustion engines and there’s an electric future coming into focus.

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Do Keep Up, Honda

keep up honda campaign (3)Honda has a new TV ad. Called Keep Up, it champions the company’s commitment to innovation. It’s typical of Honda’s TV spots – arresting and engaging. But it also encapsulates the problem at the core of the business. Honda makes some brilliant, technically advanced cars. But it makes some very dowdy ones and those are the ones it sells – in dramatically falling numbers.

Honda doesn’t seem to know what it is. And if you don’t know what you are you can’t know how to market yourself. You could argue that Honda doesn’t truly have a brand. And this is a huge problem – because today’s car market is all about brand. Nobody makes a truly bad car any more: a Skoda is a VW is an Audi. So brand is the differentiator.

In recent years Audi, BMW and Mercedes have invaded mainstream territory with smaller, more everyday products, and ultra-low interest rates mean almost anyone can now get into one of their cars. At the same time the ‘value’ brands like Hyundai and Kia have marched into the mainstream. The result? A very squeezed middle.

So life has become extremely hard for the likes of Ford, Opel/Vauxhall, Renault, PSA Peugeot-Citroen and the Japanese carmakers. But where the European brands are rethinking their relevance, the Japanese – with the exception of the now half-French Nissan – are not. Honda in particular.

surtees_2_jan_1967Which is odd, because it’s Honda which has the heritage and the soul to register with customers. There was the tiny but brilliant S600 sports car and the Z microcar. There were the rising-sun liveried F1 cars and world championships for Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. There was the NSX – a non-images-23vulgar supercar – and the screaming S2000 roadster. There was the pioneering of variable valve timing, hybrids and now hydrogen fuel cells. There was Asimo the robot, and even a new kind of business jet.

And yet customers carried on buying run-of-the-mill Civics and perhaps a lawn mower. The engineering wasn’t working. If it was part of the brand it was a part which didn’t matter to the people actually buying the cars.

The result? A nose-dive in sales since the premium brands re-shaped the landscape. Honda now has a market share in Europe of just 1.0%. That’s behind Suzuki and only just ahead of Mitsubishi. Like Toyota and Nissan, Honda has a European factory, yet it has just a quarter of their shares. And it has been trampled by new brands like Hyundai and Kia, which together have almost six times Honda’s share. Something has gone very badly wrong.

A lack of diesels – ironic for a business with engines at its heart – and a strategic cut in R&D spend following the 2008 crash have hit Honda hard. But the problem is more fundamental than that.

2015-honda-jazz-01-1Honda will say that it’s about to reborn, with a stream of new product. This week at the Geneva motor show it will have a new high-performance Civic, a new-generation hybrid NSX supercar (effectively a Porsche 918 for not much more than 10% of the cost), a production version of its fuel-cell vehicle, a new Jazz supermini and a new HR-V small SUV. But it’s only the latter two which compete in volume segments of the market.

2015-Honda-HR-V-rear-viewAnd the design of the Jazz and the HR-V, like the Civic Tourer, is ungainly, clumsy and dated. That won’t matter to the typical Honda customer, but Honda needs new customers. And new customers will not be persuaded by product like this. Design is now a prime brand communicator. In the years since Honda’s R&D cut consumers have become much more design-literate – the advent of the iPhone saw to that – and car companies have become much bolder.

To be successful today a car company needs a strong, clearly articulated brand. But the brand has to be underpinned by the product – cars which people want. Only then will the engineering credentials and brand messaging count. If the product’s not right the messaging has nothing to adhere to.

So the advertising, like the engineering, currently exists in isolation. It’s great. It wins awards. But it won’t sell cars. Sadly, for business with such a pedigree, it’s Honda which hasn’t kept up.

Davos? Next time take the car

Apparently trust and leadership were the buzzwords at Davos this year. A pity they were only talked about.

croppedimage780520-Davos-Schweiz-Winterlandschaft-Sunstar-Hotels-Davos2The much-quote figure of 1700 private flights bringing the world’s plutocrats into Davos for the World Economic Forum, where climate change was a headline topic, may be too good to be true. About half that number appears to be more likely. But it does highlight the fact that the annual Davos bonding session is, let’s say, something of a contradiction.

The clue’s in the name: it’s an economic forum. Growth may well be the key to reducing inequality, as many were saying last week, but it’s also handy for those more focused on improving their own quality of life. The place is summed up this year by the reported sighting of a monk checking his smart phone. And who knows if anyone saw the contradiction in Google’s choice of party entertainment, the singer Aloe Blacc (most famous song: I Need a Dollar)?

720x405-AP907210667509You couldn’t make it up. And you didn’t really need to. Given the fact that, after years of being pushed down the Davos agenda, climate change was back – and and launching the event with Al Gore/Pharrell Williams double act – what was the WEF (mission: Committed to Improving the State of the World) doing 5000ft up a mountain and 150km from the nearest airport and sizeable transport hub.

private-jet-over-snow-mountains-Pilots-Perspective-Travel-3Sixty-AirAsiaEven if the number of private jet movements was half that speculated, that’s rather inefficient in pilot-to-passenger ratios. And private jets burn more fuel in an hour than a car does in a year. That’s an inconvenient truth.

We know that these people need to move around quickly. We understand that having so many important people gathered together in a single place means we can interrogate their influence. We appreciate that the event focuses them and the outside world on the big issues. But.

Davos could look to an event like Editorial Intelligence’s Names Not Numbers, where some of today’s smartest and most influential people first got together (and still do) in the very real environment of a genteel British Victorian seaside town. It’s not parochial – it attracts an international audience, thinkers rather than figureheads, and the event has now spread to New York and Mumbai.

WEF’s Swiss venue and date early in the year make for an interesting comparison with the Geneva motor show (this year 2-15 Mar). It’s Europe’s major annual auto industry event, so leaders from all over the world fly in. But unlike Davos it’s held at sea level (or at least lake level), and is a 10-minute walk from a major airport and a five-minute train ride to the city centre.

20181_300Road transport contributes around 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions. But it’s one of mankind’s most important tools. Motor vehicles changed our lives. They mobilised us. They enable business. They transform the lives of people in rural communities. They offer humanitarian assistance. They help fight wars. We need them and they’re being reinvented for the modern world.

And Geneva highlights a car industry which achieves more than the lofty talking shop of Davos ever will. The carmakers have achieved minor miracles. In Europe the average CO2 emissions for all new cars will fall to 130g/km this year. The target for 2021 is 95g/km, which will be down 40% from as recently as 2007 – the year before the financial meltdown caused by the world’s political and business leaders, the same people who were at Davos 2015.

In the UK the emissions are down around 45% since 2000, because a buoyant market means that people are buying newer cars with cleaner tech. And all this is before mass adoption of ultra-low-emissions vehicles has even begun.

This year will see Al Gore’s Live Earth concerts, ahead of the UN-hosted intergovernmental climate conference in Paris – tried-and-tested formats for achieving little. Meantime 2015 will also see the first production hydrogen fuel-cell cars and the roll-out of zero-emissions autonomous vehicles. The auto industry is full of brilliant people who achieve results – fast.

What’s the betting that the next 12 months will also see another Davos World Economic Forum in which the same people will hear the same things said before listening to a pop star they haven’t heard of and climbing back into their Citations and Falcons with a diary note of the 2017 event?

Kia – the power to surprise, the power to disappoint

kia-kx35-concept-1A Kia concept, said to preview a China-only SUV model, at a second-tier Chinese motor show. Hardly big news, especially as the industry was focused on the Los Angeles show at the time. But the Kia KX3 unveiled in Guangzhou show a few days ago is an interesting product for what it says about the brand.

Its front-end styling has the same basic form as a Porsche Cayenne, the SUV which saved the German carmaker, accounting for half its volumes and becoming a talisman for the brand in China.

Kia, like its Hyundai sister brand, has been a revelation in the last few years, growing phenomenally and producing very well designed products. It’s secret has been to add good styling to the value brand proposition. But it’s an overstretch for Kia to try to assume some of Porsche’s cachet.

And there’s a very good reason not to ape Porsche design: the Cayenne’s unloved styling was a direct result of applying iconic 911 design language to a front-engined, four-door car for the first time. And the 911’s styling was borne out of the rear-engine layout, meaning that it could have a very low bonnet line. This resulted in a unique – and aesthetically problematic – form in which the Cayenne’s headlights sit above the radiator grille, giving a bug-eyed, ungainly look. There’s been no other car like it. Until now.

Porsche-Cayenne-S-E-HybridThe original Cayenne’s looks were universally unpopular. They’ve been refined but whether you like them or not is not the issue. The point is that they were, and remain, a must for Porsche in communicating its brand: the Cayenne may have been a heavy, high-centre-of-gravity beast but its engineering and dynamics were as cutting-edge as those of a 911. It was an SUV but it was a Porsche. Aesthetics had to be secondary. The design of the Kia KX3 has no such rationale.

Kia has been a revelation in the past five or so years, growing phenomenally and producing very well designed products. In a visionary move, in 2007 Kia recruited the European designer of the iconic Audi TT, Peter Schreyer, to head its styling. He’s since become the boss of all Hyundai-Kia design and the most senior non-Korean in its business globally. In so doing the management has elevated the brands and created a compelling combination of the rational and emotional.

1bUnder Schreyer, Kia has been a triumph of unexpectedly confident, contemporary, original, perfectly proportioned designs – ironically everything that Porsche design is not and cannot be. This is especially true of the Sportage, which the KX3 is, in reality, thought to be previewing.

Now they’re trying to differentiate Kia from Hyundai, especially in design terms. They want to add more emotion and sportiness, and a stronger design signature. But the best brands are aligned with great original design: think Apple. And they give consumers what the consumers don’t know that they want: again, think Apple. Allowing the Chinese market to define wider product and design strategy would be a mistake.

Kia is on the rise. It’s just been ranked 74 in Interbrand’s 100 Best Global Brands, with brand value up almost 500% since Schreyer’s arrival. It’s fulfilled the brand message ‘The Power to Surprise’. But if the KX3 signals the next design phase it also has the power to disappoint.

Large MPVs – the next big thing?

Renault-Espace-0Large, stylish MPVs could be making a comeback. At the recent Paris motor show Renault relaunched the Espace as a bold, well designed MPV-cum-crossover, and Ford showed the latest S-Max, which will be a recipient of the company’s new Vignale luxury trim and concierge service.

The premium brands are making moves too: Paris saw the launch of the production BMW 2-Series Active Tourer, a compact MPV, while Mercedes – which replace the MPV-style A-Class with a conventional hatchback a couple of years ago – reaffirmed its interest in that segment by revealing a new B-Class.

That the two German premium brands are investing effort into MPVs is significant, but they may be missing an opportunity beyond the compact, higher-volume segments. Large MPVs are a neglected niche: after Toyota introduced the innovative and stylish Previa in the mid-1990s, the territory was commoditised by the mainstream brands, with utilitarian van-based models and products marketed as bland school-run devices offering space but no character and a mediocre driving experience. MPVs had become merely ‘people carriers’.

SUVs then entered the marketed. They were premium. They needed to be, because of the cost of the four-wheel-drive technology and – starting with the first BMW X5 – the additional cost of engineering decent handling into a heavy, high-centre-of-gravity lump. But more importantly the SUV concept was American, so they were marketed as lifestyle vehicles, recreational tools. They enhanced your life rather than announcing to the word your grim acceptance of its responsibilities.

Of the premium brands only Mercedes persevered with the large MPV, but its products have remained van-based. So Renault may have hit on something with the new Espace. Not everyone wants an SUV – Audi Q7s, BMW X5s and Mercedes MLs have begun to symbolise some of the less appealing characteristics of the monied middle-classes. And very few need off-road capability.

2015-volvo-xc90-steering-wheelI was with a Volvo strategy guy at Paris and it got me thinking. I’d probably buy an S-Max if it had a different badge. I’d almost certainly buy the Espace if they produce it in right-hand drive. But I’d far prefer it with a Volvo badge.

Volvo can carry off a contemporary interpretation of a large, MPV. It has the brand-width to do it (unlike Jaguar, another near-premium brand, which can stretching itself to SUVs but no further). An MPV would suit Volvo’s brand values and its design aesthetic. Volvo is about stylish functionality – vehicles with a purpose but also a personality, confident but classless, luxurious but life-2015-Volvo-XC90-interior-controls-press-imageenhancing. And its products are increasingly about cabin design – supremely comfortable but understated, ergonomically intelligent, with natural materials, authenticity and the influence of Scandinavian home interior trends. What better medium to express this than an inherently spacious, light and flexible MPV cabin?

Volvo’s boss recently said that until 2020 it will only replace existing models. That’s a pity, because there’s a gap in the market and a brand fit. And if Volvo were to fill that gap it would challenge the German big three by setting a trend rather than merely offering an alternative to a product type already offered by the competitors. Which would make the brand far stronger.

 

Paris motor show becomes a brand catwalk

The cars aren’t the stars so much as the narrators at motor shows these days. They tell an interesting story – how car brands are striving, and in may cases struggling – for relevance in an astonishingly competitive, over-crowded market.

The Paris motor show going on right now does this more than any other, because it gives centre stage to France’s own: Renault, Peugeot and Citroen. Three brands which have always struggled on the international stage and were floored by the economic crisis in Europe.

5169344898592298Citroen used Paris to launch the separation of its DS line. DS models offer Mini-like personalisation and high-quality materials, and they’re sold at a premium so there’s more profit. The mother brand’s mainstream products are hugely improved, but for years they’ve been piled as high as the Eiffel Tower and sold as cheaply as a plastic Paris bistro table cloth. Lining one up alongside a DS in either a motor show or show room only distresses the latter – and its profitability. The super-sculpted DS Divine concept in Paris was there to show that DS products are going to have unique styling to ensure greater differentiation. And greater profit.

Fellow PSA brand Peugeot believes that if it offers excellent quality at mainstream prices the numbers will happen. And today’s Peugeots are well-designed, with thoughtful interiors, tactile materials and good build. It’s an impressive turnaround. But there was little new in Paris. Even the Exalt crossover concept had been seen before – at the Beijing show. That betrays its ambitions in China, but for Europe there are only facelifts until the end of next year, and for a company still dependent on Europe that’s a concern.

017E00D707663739-photo-renault-espacePSA has refused the budget-brand route, unlike Renault with Dacia. The Romanian brand has been propping its parent up over the last couple of years, but now Renault has emerged with excellent new product of its own. The Fiat 500-esque Twingo will give some fizz back to the brand, while the styling has a new-found confidence, shown in the Espace revealed in Paris. It’s an MPV with a low, muscular stance and an interior which wouldn’t look out of place in a Range Rover.

It could be a breakthrough for Renault in the large-car market where it’s always struggled, but the company is giving more prominence to its Initiale sub-brand. Unlike DS, Initiale won’t spawn models but a new luxury trim level. Ford is doing something similar with its Vignale line, seen in Paris in the form of a dedicated merchandise and accessory boutique on the stand. The new S-Max and Mondeo models revealed at the show will lend themselves well to the Vignale treatment, and there’s nothing not to like about the concierge-style service offered. But it’s very hard to see Ford conquesting customers from the premium brands without a product as bold and surprising as the Espace.

The approach being taken by Ford’s principal mainstream rival, Opel, is more in line with Peugeot’s: everyday, good value products with increasing quality and sophistication. But GM’s new dawn in Europe after the dropping of the Chevrolet value brand was signaled in Paris by the new Corsa supermini – an everyday car in one of the traditional segments you still have to be in. The new car has been developed from the old one’s architecture, which is fine – VW has done that with the Golf in the recent past – but it’s a mistake for the new Corsa to look so similar to the outgoing car. GM listened to what customers said about the old car, and this is the result. When did Apple last do that?

GM Europe has acquired several senior VW people in the past year or two, so perhaps it’s become a model for the Opel revival. VW keeps doing what it does best – granite-like rationality – and the evolutionary new Passat in Paris could have gone unnoticed.

Paris saw the world debut of Volvo’s XC90. It’s a wholly more convincing way to usher in a new era than Opel’s, but it’s not bang-on. The XC90 is the right car to go with to send the message that Volvo is an upmarket lifestyle brand. And the interior – which is what really matters for a Volvo – is a lovely place to be. But Volvo is now a design-led brand, which has not translated fully to the slightly utilitarian exterior. And the pricing is ambitious – maybe too ambitious. Volvo needs to escape the ‘near-premium’ straitjacket but it will do that more effectively by concentrating on being what it is – a genuine alternative to the premium brands – rather than aligning itself more closely with them on price.

IMG_0974The opportunity for Volvo is clearly there when you look at the established premium market leaders Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Each is intent on offering something for absolutely everyone, which means creating new sub-segments. Volvo is too small do do the same, but that allows for a clearer brand statement. There’s a growing feeling in the industry that fragmentation has its economic limits, but Audi is intent on a 60-model range by 2020, including a family of TT models based around the TT sports coupe, likely to include a TT SUV. Paris saw the unveiling of a five-door TT concept, less of a leap and something of a return to form on the design front. It may not sell as many as a TT SUV but it would serve the brand better.

Over at Daimler, Mercedes’ effort to match Audi’s range was amply demonstrated in Paris by the simultaneous launch of the exotic AMG GT sports car and the smart fortwo and forfour city cars. BMW showed a new version of the unloved X6 coupe crossover which only highlighted the lacklustre design running through its range. Interior materials are on the slide too. It’s hard to avoid the thought that the company’s best people have been working on the game-busting i3 and i8 electric range.

2016-jaguar-xe-parisThis background may help Jaguar. Like Volvo, it’s small and it has to get the segments and products right. The new XE compact executive car – a 3-Series rival – is its most important car ever and was revealed in Paris. Quality seems excellent and, crucially, it’s different from the German premium offerings it has to compete against. It’s visibly a Jaguar, even if the rear-end styling is somewhat generic. But perhaps that’s deliberate: BMW has become a major fleet player with the always-inoffensive 3-Series over the past 10 years.

Jaguar’s sister Land Rover brand showed the Discovery Sport in public for the first time in Paris and, like the XE, it’s a vital model for the business. Its smooth, compact shape contains a cleverly packaged interior with seven seats, but it’s a further step away from Land Rover design and brand values and towards a generic Range Rover/Land Rover look and purpose.

Hyundai and Kia offer a surprisingly relevant viewpoint here: hugely successful as a merged business producing essentially the same products with unique styling, the group is now making a concerted effort to formally differentiate the look and brands further. It’s an enlightened approach from a business which took the original Audi TT designer Peter Schreyer on board and elevated him to president status. Kia’s aggressive-looking new Sorento large SUV, and Hyundai’s sophisticated new i20 small car, both revealed in Paris, articulate the new positioning well.

The Hyundai-Kia group has frightened the life out of the Japanese brands, and in Paris you could see why. Toyota was the most impressive, and is finally concentrating on communicating its pioneering position in low-carbon solutions. It gave a European debut to the the production fuel-cell car which will go on sale in Europe next year, plus a hybrid crossover concept to compete with the Nissan Qashqai crosssover. Toyota may lead on technology but it lags behind on product planning.

Nissan launched its Pulsar hatchback, almost a decade after replacing its conventional offerings with crossovers. It may be a market necessity but it weakens the brand positioning, and suddenly, Nissan’s position in the market is looking weaker than alliance partner Renault’s.

But it’s better off than Honda, which now sells only fractionally more than Mitsubishi in Europe, and is behind Suzuki. It’s way behind Mazda, with its ‘go our own way’ approach, and despite having new cars on the Paris stand Honda looked outdated and lost.

Honda is competing in a market packed with brands which are becoming better defined and more expressive. They’re not all going to succeed. But without investing in the brands the carmakers will lose relevance and ultimately fail. Shows like Paris remind us that modern cars are extraordinarily capable, technical marvels which are a tribute to their engineers and designers. They’ll very soon be driving themselves. But they can’t sell themselves. In a market where high-quality cars and affordable finance come as standard, brand engagement will decide consumers’ purchase decisions.

More Discovery, less Land Rover

The replacement for Land Rover’s compact, family-friendly model, the Freelander, was announced this week with a new name – the Discovery Sport.

lr_ds_statics_07Pulling the Freelander into the Discovery range is a sensible move for the Land Rover/Range Rover brands. It rationalises the model ranges, and it co-opts a name which has assumed sub-brand status thanks to the Discovery’s combination of modern but uniquely Land Rover looks and unbeatable functionality. The intention is clear from the oversized ‘Discovery’ bonnet badging where ‘Land Rover’ used to sit.

The new Discovery Sport has been engineered and packaged to provide more space than the outgoing Freelander, including a third row of seats, in a barely-bigger footptint. That’s clever. And it manages it while looking sleeker, more premium and completely contemporary.

But in doing so it leaves behind the Land Rover design language which has helped make the existing Discovery a brand icon and a statement of resolute differentiation from SUVs produced by other brands, which are mass-adopting a lower, less utilitarian look. The exterior styling also has a lot in common with Range Rover’s urban, fashion-oriented Evoque model, and plenty of similarities with the Evoques’ big brother.

It even shares that Range Rover’s Sport tag. This merges and confuses the two brands. But, more importantly, sportiness has little if any relevance to Land Rover. It’s diffuses the brand.

So what makes the Discovery Sport a Land Rover? And what will make the Discovery replacement a Land Rover? It’s no longer the styling – if anything, Range Rovers now have the more utilitarian body shapes. And it’s not the core value of functionality – after all, the Range Rover Sport also offers seven seats.

The increasingly high price point for Land Rovers doesn’t help. At launch – with only one engine, taken from the existing car – the Discovery Sport will cost from £32,000 to £43,000. A few options and the price will creep towards £50,000. That’s well into Porsche Macan territory – an SUV which is sporty because the brand dictates it.

Compare Land Rover’s price positioning with, say Audi’s. Equivalent versions of its Q5 SUV range top out at £37,500. OK, it’s not a Land Rover – but if the unique identity of the Land Rover brand is diluted then so is the emotional appeal of its products. Which is where Audi, BMW and Mercedes come in. They’ve aggressively targeted every market segment, especially SUVs. They’re premium but they’ve opened themselves up to everyone rather than adopt exclusive pricing. They’re a threat, the more so as Land Rover becomes more premium and less obviously functional.

Land Rover makes excellent cars. Sales will continue to grow in the short-to-medium term. But it has serious brand challenges. It should ensure that sales ambitions don’t shape the brand, and that Land Rover’s brand differentiation, achieved over decades of leadership, is both preciously preserved and clearly stated. That starts with the design of the product, but with the Discovery Sport it has become more generic. In the long term that’s going to help Audi, BMW and Mercedes more than Land Rover.

 

 

New Volvo XC90 – not close enough to the edge?

That design is increasingly a core brand communicator for car companies is underlined by Volvo’s new XC90, revealed this week.

2015-Volvo-XC90-First-Edition-GrilleThe XC90 has become the car which underpins Volvo’s brand. The concept of an SUV sits more comfortably with Volvo than with any other company: good SUVs should be true lifestyle vehicles, where substance is never beaten by style, and in which everything serves a purpose – one of which is, simply, making your life better. For the inventors of the well-made, classless, intelligently designed and extremely safe family box on wheels, the XC90 articulates the brand better than any other model could.

05-volvo-xc90So the XC90 is the right vehicle to be leading with as Volvo effectively relaunches itself with a wave of new models. But the exterior design of the car, so vital to making a big brand statement, is not quite as well resolved as it should be, given the car’s ambassadorial role. Head-on and tail-on it does the job. In a nod to the past, it’s boxy, yet unlike previous Volvos it’s relatively cluttered. But more toyota-land-cruiser-v8-03importantly it’s a tall car and looks it: the beltline is low and flat, with almost no rake. And there’s little tension in the surfacing. The effect is that in profile and front-three-quarter views it lacks forward motion and dynamism. It’s reminiscent of the utilitarian Toyota Landcruiser V8. Which isn’t where Volvo needs to be.

Does this matter? After all, shouldn’t a Volvo should be happily understated, not shouty? Even coolly smug that it’s not a be-chromed Mercedes M-Class, an aggressively squat BMW X5 or a blacked-out Audi Q7?

Yes. But Volvo is talking about taking on the big premium brands. And it’s opening the order books with a limited edition version at a price of £68,000 (Euros 85,500), ahead of sales of a range starting at £45,000. Compare those figures with BMW’s brand new X5, which starts at £43,000 and tops out at £64,000 for a 402bhp petrol M sport derivative as opposed to the limited-edition Volvo’s 225bhp diesel engine. And the range-topping hybrid XC90 will push the ceiling higher. Leading with a loaded limited edition is a clear strategic move to establish Volvo in consumers’ minds as a confident, premium, aspirational brand. However, in doing that it’s trying to leap from sub-premium – an uncomfortable place where the brand has been locked into for years – to super-premium in a single move.

The issue here is not so much the size of the leap but that it’s not necessarily in the right direction. Volvo shouldn’t be trying to take on the German establishment directly. Its brand relevance is that it’s different and occupies a lateral space; a sudden vertical move undermines this uniqueness. At these price levels people buy on what a brand says about them, and a Volvo should say independent thinking and practical luxury for real, smart people at sensible prices. Not necessarily a 1400-Watt audio system and a crystal glass gear shifter.

Volvo has said that the exterior design of the next new model, the S90 executive car, will be edgier. It will need to be. Because while the brand should remain authentic and eschew ostentation, it needs a 100% confident design language to support a more aspirational price and brand positioning. That will help it take on the establishment from a position of difference and greater strength.

There’s not much amiss with the new XC90. But unlike Mercedes, BMW and Audi, with their huge model ranges, every new Volvo has to be bang-on and express the brand perfectly.

Volvo has shown how to combine practicality, cutting-edge technology, uncluttered design and Scandinavian character into interiors which are perfectly resolved. They’re not only a welcome change from those of the German brands but are world-leading. If it can make its cars as confident and satisfying to behold from outside as to sit in and to use, then it will be able to compete better emotionally as well as rationally.

Volkswagen group not profiting from its brands’ equity

_origin_Fakti-kas-tevi-parsteigs-9Martin Winterkorn, boss of Volkswagen Group, admitted this month that the business “urgently” needs better profits, and today’s half-year results announcement confirmed falls in both profits and sales. This is the company, remember, which has targeted global number one status by 2018, and since Winterkorn became CEO in 2007 CEO has increased production by 4m units and doubled its revenues.

One of the reasons for VW’s poor profitability is that it isn’t global in terms of geographical spread. It’s in the key growth market, China, but is actually over-dependent on it, whereas it has little traction in south and south-east Asia. And market share is relatively low in the USA, with the VW brand on the slide. Another factor is that VW is light on compact SUVs, the biggest growth segment globally. A further reason and perhaps the most significant is its sheer size – a company this big simply can’t avoid inefficiencies.

But here’s the elephant in the boardroom: VW’s problem is also down to brands. VW group isn’t merely huge; it has a huge brand portfolio, with 12 brands in total – stretching to trucks and motorbikes – and over 310 models. Paradoxically, rather than providing economies of scale, in the accumulation of brands the collective mass has outweighed the ability to exploit the efficiencies.

By 2007 it already had the considerable challenge of consolidating and managing a passenger car portfolio of SEAT, Skoda, VW, Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti. Each was struggling for both individual relevance and group synergy. Skoda had already begun to produce cars in the VW brand’s space. VW in turn was encroaching on Audi, which was moving onto mainstream segments previously the preserve of these brands while simultaneously launching de-facto Lamborghinis. Bentley was doing a fine job. Bugatti was, well, Bugatti, and SEAT was struggling not to be a Spain-only brand and was being jumped by Skoda. The group was competing with itself, and the mainstream brands were sharing the same market space but without sharing the economic benefits. And meanwhile the world was plunging into an economic downturn.

So what did VW do? Since Martin Winterkorn’s 2007 accession it’s added four more brands: Porsche, Ducati, MAN and Scania. It has also become the largest stakeholder in Suzuki and even consumed the design house Italdesign Giugiaro. And Skoda has stated that it wants to sell on quality and style, while Lamborghini and Bentley have announced SUVs.

VW’s strategy goes directly against the new automotive industry paradigm. Toyota has continued to excel in financial performance. It has not acquired other makes but concentrated on its core brand, which has maintains clear values, and its own premium-luxury brand, Lexus. Hyundai, which led even Toyota on profitability in 2013, was forced into a merger of unequals with Kia when the South Korean business bubble burst in the late 1990s. They produce cars for the same market segments, yet with only two brands they’ve not only managed the situation by differentiating the brands but have grown stratospherically since 2007. Meanwhile Ford has divested itself of Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover, and is emerging strongly under the ‘One Ford’ mantra. GM is now doing the same in Europe, discarding Chevrolet to concentrate on Opel/Vauxhall. And VW’s German rival BMW has limited its acquisition trail to the very distinct Rolls-Royce and Mini brands and retained the BMW group values across its portfolio.

They’ve all benefitted from a focus on a single brand or a primary and secondary brands. It’s very hard for Volkswagen group to do the same. The VW range’s own brand is still strong in spite of becoming part of the uncomfortable brand portfolio dynamic. But the group’s brand is infinitely less than the sum of its parts. It’s impossible to say what it stands for in the way that you can about its volume peers Toyota and Ford.

That VW’s profits are suffering is not surprising. That’s what happens when a goal defined by volumes is set. If the goal were instead to define and differentiate the brands more clearly, with each given the objective of becoming the most desired among consumers, then the volumes would follow. They would do so more slowly but they would do it sustainably.

New York, Beijing, Paris, Goodwood

Auto Show See Touch SmellRecent months have seen repeated calls for a UK motor show. So far this year we’ve had Detroit, Geneva, Beijing; Paris is next. Why not the UK? We’re Europe’s second largest market, and poised to become its third-biggest manufacturer, producing luxury brands Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Range Rover and Jaguar as well cars for the global market leader, Toyota.

But the fact is that motor shows are moving away from traditional automotive locations. The best European show is Geneva’s, in a country with no automotive industry and an ambivalent attitude to motoring. China’s auto industry is in its infancy, yet the industry descends on the Beijing and Shanghai shows. And New York is becoming a favoured event even though it’s a million miles from Detroit in motor culture.

There’s a change of axis which is driving this. Asia is now the world’s economic powerhouse, and with its emerging economies is the land of mass opportunity for car sales. In the mature markets a smaller show like New York is now as likely to be chosen for a major launch, especially by high-equity brands – Land Rover used it this year to unveil its future in the form of the Vision concept, because the city is a style capital, global influencer and catalyst to the US market. Detroit is not.

But the New York show itself is just like Detroit and all the others: an anachronism. Cars – things which move, transform our lives and stir the soul – parked uninspiringly on stands in vast exhibition centres. And with little to excite or involve the customer. In the age of experiential marketing, digital communication and virtual reality, the motor show needs new forms.

In that sense, the UK already has a motor show. It took place last weekend and it’s called the Goodwood Festival of Speed. It’s a social event, a celebration, a place where the famous are there as themselves, where the cars are the celebrities and are driven rather than merely displayed. It’s an occasion. A networking opportunity with props.

fos130713_E5A5751_2700013bThat attracts people – 200,000 of them -and it attracts the carmakers, who get involved in not only the celebration of motor sport at the core of the event but now also bring – and allow visitors to drive – everyday models in a lovely setting. The Festival’s Moving Motor Show alone attracted 19 car brands this year, so not just those with performance models. Dacia, Renault’s Romanian budget brand, was there with its entire range; manufacturers launch new models there (18 this year): this is now a mainstream motor show, even if it takes place outside in the grounds of a stately home.

The Festival of Speed is not a template – it’s unique, idiosyncratic – but it is an illustration of what people want from a motor show: interaction, informality, fun. Despite the incredible pace of vehicle development, the industry’s other motor shows are stuck in the 1960s. They need to change, especially if they’re not in a hot market.

If carmakers’ design and R&D brains which are transforming mobility and allowing the industry to reinvent itself for a more sustainable world could be applied to the production of motor shows, the experience could surely be transformed into something spectacularly cutting-edge. Combine that with the Festival’s more intimate virtues and it would be inspiring.